Studying grant decision-making: a linguistic analysis of review reports

Peter van den Besselaar*, Ulf Sandström, Hélène Schiffbaenker

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Peer and panel review are the dominant forms of grant decision-making, despite its serious weaknesses as shown by many studies. This paper contributes to the understanding of the grant selection process through a linguistic analysis of the review reports. We reconstruct in that way several aspects of the evaluation and selection process: what dimensions of the proposal are discussed during the process and how, and what distinguishes between the successful and non-successful applications? We combine the linguistic findings with interviews with panel members and with bibliometric performance scores of applicants. The former gives the context, and the latter helps to interpret the linguistic findings. The analysis shows that the performance of the applicant and the content of the proposed study are assessed with the same categories, suggesting that the panelists actually do not make a difference between past performance and promising new research ideas. The analysis also suggests that the panels focus on rejecting the applications by searching for weak points, and not on finding the high-risk/high-gain groundbreaking ideas that may be in the proposal. This may easily result in sub-optimal selections, in low predictive validity, and in bias.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)313-329
Number of pages17
Issue number1
Early online date13 Jul 2018
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2018


  • Decision-making
  • European Research Council (ERC)
  • Linguistics
  • LIWC
  • Panel review
  • Peer review
  • Research grants


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